As the new COVID-19 virus makes its way across the U.S, local, state and federal health agencies are calling on businesses to follow guidelines to help temper its impact.
The best defense is preparation, said Eugene Livar, Chief of the Bureau of Epidemiology & Disease Control at the Arizona Department of Health Services that hosted a webinar for businesses on the topic last week.
Companies can take simple steps to protect their employees, he said. They also should have contingency plans in place to keep essential business operations running if staff absenteeism is high.
For now, risk is low
For now, businesses are being advised to operate as they normally would during an outbreak of the flu. Have extra soap, tissues, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies on hand, he said.
Worldwide, about 90,000 people have contracted the illness, most in China where the outbreak started in late December. About 3,000 have died. In China, where the vast majority of cases have occurred, about 16 percent have been listed as serious, Livar said.
The virus is now present in close to 80 countries. In the U.S., 12 people have died. Seven were residents of the same long term care facility in Washington.
The majority of the cases are mild, health officials said. Those most at risk are the elderly in poor health. In most deaths, the patients died after contracting pneumonia along with the illness.
“What we’re really concerned about are older people, people with underlying health conditions outcomes vs. younger and healthier people,” Livar said.
In Arizona, the state lab has tested 56 people suspected of having the virus. Two were confirmed positive. Three are presumed to be infected. Forty-four patients were found not to be infected while the remaining seven tests are pending.
For business travel, currently, there are no restrictions on travel within the U.S. for people who have not traveled to affected areas or been in contact with infected individuals.
For international trips, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recommends avoiding non-essential travel to China, Iran, Italy and South Korea. For travelers headed to Japan, the CDC recommends taking “enhanced” precautionary measures.
When making plans for international travel, check the most recent travel advisories on the CDC website.
Guidelines for employers
The state health department, CDC and business advocacy organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation have created guidelines, tip sheets, posters and other resources for businesses.
Employers are encouraged to check updates frequently from their local health departments and the CDC.
Guidelines for employers include:
- Establish a process to communicate the latest COVID-19 information to employees and business partners.
- Post tip sheets for employees in common areas about how to prevent outbreaks.
- Create a plan, if needed, to maintain essential operations if a large number of employees become ill or have sick family members. Identify alternative suppliers, prioritize customers, consider digital meetings, or temporarily suspend some operations.
- Cross-train employees to prepare for spikes in absenteeism.
- Be prepared to have some employees telecommute if possible if an outbreak occurs.
- Encourage employees to stay home if sick or to care for a sick family member, and make employees aware of these policies.
- Separate sick employees who exhibit respiratory illness symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath, and send them home immediately.
- Plan to minimize exposure between healthy employees and with the public in case health officials call for social distancing.
- Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces in the workplace such as workstations, countertops, doorknobs, keyboards and cell phones. Provide alcohol-based disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down frequently.
- Allay fears. Keep employees informed about conditions in the community.
For now, Arizonans and Americans can go about their business as usual while taking precautions to prevent infection, government health officials said.
Now is not the time to panic, U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue said during a press conference about the organization’s response to the virus.
It is important to keep the economy humming for the health of industry, employees and government operations, he said.
“While concerns are certainly understandable, America’s response must be grounded in facts, not driven by fear. Now is the time to listen to experts, to stay informed, and to take reasonable measures to prepare,” Donohue said.
“What we are telling our members is the same advice we are following ourselves: be prudent and be prepared, but don’t overreact. Americans should continue to monitor the situation, but feel confident as they go about their daily lives, head to work, conduct meetings, or drop their children off at school.”